The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on the labor market are hard to overstate. What started as a temporary shift to working from home has now largely converged into a fundamental change in work arrangements. This “new normal” may further polarize economic opportunity, since not all Californians have access to remote work. Morever, remote work may also yield persistent shifts in economic standing within and across regions. Going forward, support for training opportunities may be key to help workers attain jobs that offer their preferred work arrangements.
Today, 16% of Californians work from home all the time, and 19% sometimes work from home and sometimes work outside the home, according to the November PPIC Statewide Survey. These findings correspond with national estimates suggesting that 30% of all work days are now remote, compared to only 5% pre-pandemic. The scale of remote work has been remarkably stable over the past year. While COVID is still a factor in decisions to work from home and future shifts are possible, it is clear that a much larger share of the work done in California is and will be done remotely. Notably, among those who say they are working from home today, 65% say they started doing so because of the pandemic.
The overwhelming majority of employed Californians with a preference for remote work believe that work-life balance (92%) and less time commuting (91%) are the strongest reasons to prefer working from home. Two-thirds mention being more productive and half (53%) list being able to live in a different area as a reason. Indeed, if given the choice, many more Californians would prefer remote or hybrid work: 29% of employed Californians say they would like to work from home full time and 32% would like to have a hybrid setup.
However, not all industries and occupations allow for remote or hybrid work. It’s not feasible to work from home for most jobs in the food service, retail, health, and transportation sectors, while jobs in professional services, information, and finance are more flexible. Among employed Californians, four in ten say their job can be done from home (roughly similar to the share who report at least some remote work) and six in ten say it cannot be done from home.
Because jobs vary regionally and demographically, so do the groups of Californians who can and cannot work from home. More workers in the San Francisco Bay Area (56%) have jobs that can be done from home than in Orange/San Diego (46%), the Central Valley (38%), Los Angeles (37%), and the Inland Empire (22%). Across racial/ethnic groups, Asian Americans are the most likely—and Latinos are the least likely—to say their job can be done from home. Furthermore, the share of employees who can do their job from home is more than twice as high among those making $80,000 or more (54%) as those making less (25%). The ability for employees to do their work from home also increases sharply with higher educational attainment.
This seismic shift in work has already reshaped many of California’s regions. Remote work allowed some workers to move away from places with higher costs of living and, primarily, out of dense urban areas. To a large extent, this shift has stabilized over the past year, leaving urban areas to figure out new ways to sustain healthy downtown economies. Elsewhere, population surges are providing a boost to local economies but also placing new demands on physical and social infrastructure.
In addition to affecting regional economies, Californians’ preferences for certain work arrangements can also lead to shifts in job-seeking patterns. Among those who would prefer to work from home but say their job cannot be done remotely, 65% say they would be willing to change jobs if it meant they could work from home more often. A similar share (62%) would change the type of work they do in order to work from home more often.
In the midst of a tight labor market with a record-high share of job openings, can workers who would prefer a remote or hybrid job actually make the shift? Most workers who change jobs over the near term stay within the same sector, which is unlikely to lead to dramatically different remote work options. Workers who can access training for new types of work may improve their odds of securing their preferred work arrangements. Financial barriers to these training pathways are severe for many, suggesting that public institutions can play an important role in supporting improved well-being for residents as well as preparing the state’s workforce with the skills needed for future jobs.